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Motion: The two-party system is making America ungovernable

by Damon Eris, published

The public’s deep discontent with the Democratic and Republican parties continues to bubble up to the surface of the national political dialogue.  Indeed, the two-party system is itself up for debate.

This week, National Public Radio and Bloomberg Television have begun airing the most recent Oxford-style debate sponsored by Intelligence Squared in which four well-known political commentators consider the proposition that “the two-party system is making America ungovernable.”  Arguing in favor of the motion, Arianna Huffington and David Brooks took the two-party system to task, while Zev Chafets and P.J. O’Rourke defended it as the best possible system in an imperfect world.  Following opening statements from each of the debate’s participants, moderator John Donovan of ABC News prompted each side to respond to the most incisive points posed by the other and then opened the floor to an extended series of questions from the audience.

In her opening statement, Arianna Huffington argued that the Democratic and Republican parties not only continually postpone any effort to deal with the myriad political problems facing the country, such as the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and the ongoing economic crisis, but that the dysfunction that has come to define Democratic-Republican party politics effectively produces the crises facing the country.  Noting that only 42% of the electorate was willing to cast a ballot in the last election, she concluded with a plea in favor of increased political competition.

Interestingly, P.J. O’Rourke explicitly agreed with Huffington that the major parties are both cowardly and ineffectual, but stated that he could not imagine a viable alternative.  

     “I would simply concede the debate if I were able to imagine some other political party or independent candidate – left, right or fanatically middle-of-the-road – who would do a better job,” he said.  

Arguing that Republicans constitute “the stupid party” and Democrats are “the silly party,” he placed the blame for our nation’s political woes squarely at the feet of American voters rather than the parties themselves, asserting that “the problem is us damn voters.”

David Brooks made the case that good people in politics are thwarted by the fact that they are “stuck in a rotten system.” The increasingly tribal nature of the Democratic and Republican parties, he argued, is an impediment to dialogue aimed at constructing even imperfect solutions to concrete political problems.  “If you took individuals outside the party context that we have now, I bet we could all cut a deal,” he stated.  Brooks further stressed that, given the dominance of the extreme left and right wing factions within the major parties, the two-party system leaves millions of American moderates and centrists unrepresented in government.

Finally, Zev Chafetz addressed the motion head on, asserting that people have always said America is ungovernable, but that the two-party system has served the country well over the course of its history and remains superior to multi-party parliamentary systems such as those found in Europe.

Confronted with one of the most common critiques of contemporary Democratic-Republican party politics, namely, that increased political polarization prevents the formation of political consensus, Chafetz and O’Rourke turned the tables and argued that polarization is rather a positive aspect of the two-party state.  While O’Rourke stated that polarization is the historical norm rather than the exception, Chafetz added that it furthermore ensures vigorous debate. 

Though the motion did not require Huffington and Brooks to argue in favor of an alternative to the two-party system, but rather only to prove its inadequacy, O’Rourke and Chafetz asked time and again: what is the alternative?  

     “Having lived in a country that has 14 parties ,” said Chafetz at one point, “I can tell you that I didn’t find any that represented me.”  

Neither Huffington nor Brooks, however, argued explicitly for a multiparty system, but instead called for modest reforms aimed at increasing political competition as well as voter participation, such as non-partisan primaries, ranked choice voting, and less restrictive ballot access laws. 

Perhaps the most remarkable aspect of the debate was the fact that it took place at all.  Mainstream political commentators do not often subject the two-party system to sustained criticism, and they are rarely forced to defend its very existence.  Indeed, the novelty of the debate was apparent in the obvious limitations of the arguments put forward on both sides of the issue.  

Arianna Huffington asserted that the so-called spoiler problem associated with third party candidates can be overcome via the implementation of ranked choice voting, even though it has been demonstrated by advocates of approval voting that this is not in fact the case.  P.J. O’Rourke stated that the two-party system developed “organically” over the course of American history, completely disregarding the ways in which our political system has long been rigged by Democratic and Republican lawmakers at all levels of government to squash third party and Independent political competition.  Zev Chafetz absurdly claimed that “you can’t name an election that hasn’t had a third party candidate or more.”

The audience assembled at NYU’s Skirball Center weighed in on the proposition as well.  At the outset, 46% agreed with the motion, 24% were against it and 30% were undecided.  Upon the debate’s conclusion, though there was a greater swing in opinion against the proposition, those who favored it effectively won the day: 50% agreed with the motion, 40% were against it and 10% remained undecided.

To watch the debate in its entirety, visit Intelligence Squared online, where you can find audio and video of the event as well as a plethora of background material for further reading.